20 jan 10 | Chicago Sun-Times

Architect defends his stature

by David Roeder

In reputation and marketability, Adrian Smith is Chicago's tallest architect. At age 65, Smith has reached a stature where he has nothing left to prove and little to fear. Yet, he's afraid that part of his legacy is being lost.

For that, Smith blames his former employer, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, who he says is rewriting history. Smith said Skidmore is minimizing or erasing his credit as primary designer for the firm's supertall buildings around the world. He said they are doing it for competitive spite, calling it "deception by omission." It's creating high tension in high places.

Smith had a 40-year career at Skidmore and for 26 years led its most important commissions as design partner. He left the huge firm in 2006 with protege Gordon Gill and founded Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture LLP, which is challenging Skidmore's supremacy in setting height records. At Skidmore, Smith was involved in four of the five tallest buildings in the world, including Chicago's Trump International Hotel & Tower and the just-opened Burj Khalifa, formerly the Burj Dubai. The mixed-use giant is the current record holder, measuring at 2,716 feet.

Skidmore and Smith's firm are the two finalists in the competition to design Kingdom Tower, a proposed building in Saudi Arabia that could exceed 3,200 feet. The wait has both sides on edge.

But they've also basked in the glory of Burj Khalifa and are entitled to shared credit. Smith was involved in the bidding stage, created the design and supervised the final drawings. While the building was in construction, developer Emaar Properties used Smith, not Skidmore, as a consultant.

Skidmore marketing materials issued for Burj Khalifa make no mention of Smith, highlighting instead partners Bill Baker and George Efstathiou. Baker is an engineer who Smith said provided the skills that verified Smith's design as workable. Efstathiou was a managing partner responsible for all dealings with Emaar, the client.

By keeping credit within the firm, Smith said Skidmore is violating protocol in architecture. "It's not illegal. I wouldn't say it's unethical. Is it breaching professional courtesy? Yes," Smith said.

"Have they done it before? Yes. It's somewhat standard procedure for them to have a press release and say it's SOM's work and because I'm a major competitor of theirs, now they want to minimize my true role in four of the five 'world's tallest buildings' that they claim credit for." Smith will soon have influence in that fifth Skidmore building, Willis Tower, which predated him. Owners have hired Smith to design an adjacent hotel and lead an ecologically oriented redesign.

Baker and Efstathiou said in a joint e-mail, "It is SOM practice to properly follow all requirements of the attribution of work of other professionals whenever discussing any project." They added, "Adrian Smith is a colleague in our profession whom we respect and we both understand that if there is a point we need to discuss, we take the time to do so directly with each other. We are unaware of any concern Adrian Smith has that has not been satisfactorily addressed in that manner."

Smith, however, said discussion has gotten him nowhere. He said it's gotten so bad that Skidmore has tried to exclude him from conferences about Burj Khalifa. Emaar Properties, wanting to promote an Adrian Smith building, agreed to sponsor one symposium only if Smith were the keynote speaker. And Smith alleges that Skidmore barred mention of his name in an exhibit about Burj Khalifa that it organized for the Skyscraper Museum in New York. He said the museum's director, Carol Willis, sent him an apologetic note about his exclusion.

Willis was traveling overseas Tuesday and did not respond to a Sun-Times e-mail.

In battling Skidmore for clients, Smith has a couple of advantages. One is that there are shoot-for-the-moon developers who ask for him by name. The other is that Skidmore has a policy of forcing partners into retirement at age 65. He left when he was 62, sensing, he said, that the firm was "marginalizing" him in favor of upcoming partners. "That's the way Skidmore always has sustained itself," he said.

But now Smith doesn't have to play a corporate game of "beat the clock." He feels he has good years left, and hopes to spend them adding to the Chicago skyline and helping high-rises become more energy efficient. Skidmore has formidable talent as well, but it also has a revolving door.